5 Anti-Procrastination Strategies for Finishing Tasks
Tips for people who struggle to finish tasks.
Posted April 21, 2022 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Recently, I wrote about how I'm better at starting tasks than finishing them. Since publishing that post, it's been interesting to hear from others who are the same. Typically, we think of procrastination as difficulty starting tasks, but equally, it can be difficulty finishing them.
If you fall into this category, try these tips. (Pick one tip to try initially, rather than attempting them all.)
1. Last steps first.
A reader, Cortney, wrote to me saying that she often writes the email that will accompany a piece of work first. She said this helps her because
- writing emails is something she does regularly and is easy and quick for her
- writing the email helps her frame what she needs to create
I wrote back, "Snap, I use the same strategy," but I'd never really thought about it as a strategy that would help others. Evidently, it does.
You can also look for other ways to reduce the burden of the final steps in a task. When I write posts, I usually choose the photo that will accompany the content when I'm about halfway done with writing, rather than leave it until the end. I do this when I'm starting to run out of writing steam. The short cognitive break from task-switching helps me return to the post with fresher eyes and finish it off. (Yes, contrary to population opinion, task-switching can be helpful.)
2. Learn what works for you from self-observation.
Cortney's example is a fantastic illustration of an important principle I teach in detail in Stress-Free Productivity: Your best, most creative, easiest-to-maintain, productivity strategies will often be those you develop through self-observation and working with your nature, versus those you learn from gurus, experts, or even general psychological science.
Whenever you stumble on a strategy that works for you, notice that. When you do, you can turn it into a system, and think about how you could use the same strategy, or one based on the same principle, in other contexts.
3. Assess the role of perfectionism and perfectionism-induced exhaustion.
Some folks struggle to finish tasks because they want to perform perfectly and that pressure creates procrastination. I can even think of a current example of this. I need to write a book endorsement for a colleague. I finished most of the book a week ago, but I want the endorsement to be perfectly pitched. Therefore, I'm putting off that part.
In perfectionism-induced exhaustion, people put so much work into the task that they're spent before they finish. Think of this pattern as being like an athlete who goes out too hard at the start of the race and doesn't leave enough in their tank for the final leg, so they fade.
Try compassionate self-talk to address perfectionism (Examples, including sample language are here, here, here, and here.)
4. Identify and solve specific patterns.
Notice specific behavior patterns and address them. For example, when I clean out the fridge, I often throw out about 90 percent of what I should but still leave a few things in there that I should throw away. Usually, these are items my ideal self would get around to using, but not my real self. For instance, I bought a stick of lemongrass when I made Asian food about three weeks ago, but I didn't end up using it. I could blitz it up and freeze it, but I know I actually won't. Sometimes, I leave items I let expire without even opening the package because I feel so guilty. A third category is containers and condiments with less than a tablespoon of product left in them. Either I leave them in the fridge or I put the container into the sink and leave it for my spouse to wash out to put in the recycling (which doesn't make me popular).
When you identify specific issues, you can use heuristics. For example, create a rule, "Always throw out any container will less than two tablespoons remaining."
Do your own creative problem-solving. Always aim to solve problems in ways that suit your nature and strategies (see point #2). Spelling out a problem clearly, and in the type of honest detail I've done here, often gets you halfway to solving it.
5. Share tasks with good finishers.
I've written before about how my spouse is a good finisher and I'm a good starter. For example, when washing our sheets, I strip the bed and put the washing machine on, and she hangs the sheets on the line to dry. Think creatively and broadly about how this tip might apply to you, and your personal and work tasks and relationships.
Understanding your nature can give you a framework to address specific patterns that cause (minor or major) problems for you. You'll succeed more in managing yourself if you get to know yourself and go beyond strategies that are intended to work or be relevant for everyone. If you have sabotaging patterns that generalized strategies haven't helped with, try personalized strategies suited to your nature and personality.